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What's Behind the US Obesity Epidemic? - 2002-03-14

Eleven years ago, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or CDC, conducted a nationwide study of obesity in the population. In four of the fifty states, it found that fifteen percent or more of the adult population qualified not just as overweight, but as obese. The CDC recently repeated the study and discovered there are now 37 states with high numbers of truly fat people. Why the obesity epidemic? And what can be done about it?

The Centers for Disease Control is looking hard at fast food - high in calories and fat - as one source of the nation's obesity epidemic. Not the only source, for the agency recognizes that many Americans are not getting enough exercise. But Dr. William Dietz, director of the CDC's Division of Nutrition and Physical Activity, says the time has come to do a thorough study of the correlation between fast food and the plumping of America. "Forty-five percent of a family's budget spent on food is now spent on food consumed outside the home, which includes fast food," he says.

Dr. Dietz points out that, especially in households with two working adults - each coming home from a job with little time to prepare a balanced meal - it's tempting to order in pizza or stop by a fast-food restaurant for fattening sandwiches, french fries, sugary soft drinks, and ice-cream treats. And with the sedentary nature of television watching in the evening and on weekends, Dr. Dietz says, Americans are not exercising enough to work off the extra calories.

"Television promotes foods, and about 40 percent of the advertisements on children's television are food advertisements," he says. "And the more television children watch, the more likely they are to eat while watching television, and the more likely that those foods that they eat are the foods advertised on television."

These foods are convenient foods, says Eric Schlosser, author of the best-selling book, Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal.

"These are all foods that you can eat with one hand behind the wheel of a car. And they generally don't require very much chewing," he says. "The faster you eat, the more you're likely to eat. You have a drive-through window, you don't even have to get out of your car to walk to the counter and walk back. All of these things in moderation might not be having the same effect. It's really the [fast-food companies] intense marketing that is encouraging you to eat it repeatedly. They make enormous profits off what they call, 'heavy users.'"

Research by the Centers for Disease Control and other agencies helped stir up a national campaign against another health threat, smoking, thirty years or so ago. The CDC's William Dietz says a similar campaign against obesity is in order. But he says there are three things the nation can do now.

"One is increase breast-feeding for children," he says. "We know that there's a relationship between formula-feeding and obesity. Secondly, I think that we can control television-watching by children. Third, I think we need to promote physical activity every way we can."

Several years ago some fast-food companies introduced low-calorie alternatives to high-fat hamburgers and fries. McDonald's offered the "McLean" burger, partially made of seaweed. But the product did not taste very good, sales were slow, and McLean burgers and salads disappeared from the menu. Today, what's called "super-sizing" is the trend at fast-food outlets. By parting with just a little more money, customers can buy enormous bags of french fries, huge containers of sweet soft drinks, and extra patties of meat or slices of cheese on their sandwiches.

Eric Schlosser points out that two of the world's largest fast-food chains, McDonald's and Burger King, introduced new children's meals within the past year. "One is called the 'Mighty Kids' Meal,' and the Burger King version is appropriately called the 'Big Kids' Meal.' And what they have essentially done is increase the portion sizes in these children's meals," he says. "The food tastes good. And if you look at who's eating an enormous amount of it, it's the poor. This is the food of the poor."

Last year, fast-food companies spent $3 billion avertising foods that are high in fat, salt, and sugar. Many of those ads are aimed at children, and public health officials point out that if children are obese by age thirteen, they are likely to remain fat the rest of their lives.

With the latest Centers for Disease Control survey showing so many states with a significant proportion of obese people, it's apparent the advertising is working - on adults as well as children.